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Trip to the Dome

Rivoli Theater, Muncie, Indiana – My January, 1987 photographic mission continues: After photographing the main auditorium, lobbies, upstairs, backstage, and the basement…it was time to take a trip up into the attic and explore the Rivoli’s impressive ceiling dome…

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

As a child, and later as an adult, I had often looked up at the Rivoli’s ceiling dome and wondered…how high was it? How was it illuminated? Could you walk inside it? How was it constructed?  Did it serve any other purpose other than decoration and illumination? Many questions- but for me and nearly every other person that visited the Rivoli during its 60 year history – the questions had always remained unanswered. However, during the Rivoli’s final hours, I was about to join the ranks of a very small number of people who had actually climbed inside the dome….

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Tom Ratliff, the Rivoli’s assistant manager, led the way over to an exit near the stage and along the west wall of the auditorium. We entered an access room which contained this ladder leading to the attic of the Rivoli. Up we went, Tom with a flashlight and me with my trusty Nikons and camera bag.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Half way up to the attic we stopped at an intermediate floor. Tom explained that this room was the home of the pipes for the $25,000 Wurlitzer organ installed for its opening in 1927. More about the fate of the organ will be explained in an upcoming blog post!

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

The curtained exit at the bottom left side of this picture is where Tom and I started our journey into the attic. Directly above is the area that formerly housed the Rivoli’s organ pipes, known as the organ chamber. The perforated decorative panels allowed the sound to penetrate into the theater.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Tom and I climbed another section of the iron ladder to reach the attic. This view is looking down, into the area that formerly housed the Rivoli’s organ pipes. Note the perforated sound panel on the left side of the picture. We are now standing in the attic of the Rivoli.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Tom leads the way across a wooden walkway spanning the Rivoli’s attic. To the left you can see the wall that separates the attic from the stage area. To the right, you can see ductwork leading to the rising shape of the ceiling dome enclosure.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

The ceiling dome enclosure, covered with insulating material, is visible to my right. Hundreds of cables, attached to the Rivoli’s framework, are attached to the ceiling and dome. I marveled that all of this was constructed 60 years before..and that only a few people had ever ventured into this area during the intervening years.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

This view is looking downward at the northeast corner of the attic…where the ceiling did not extend all the way to the exterior wall. This opening extended all the way down to the basement, and was part of the Rivoli’s fresh air ventilation system. During the demolition of the Rivoli a worker was seriously injured while removing asbestos…several people have theorized that this was the spot the worker fell into.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Tom informs me that this is it…the entrance to the dome. I said “What? I’m supposed to crawl through that?” Note the light bulbs and the flexible conduit that is attached to the worklights that hang inside the dome. The worklights were never turned on when patrons were in the theater, they were used during cleanup and maintenance times.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Tom demonstrates that the entry is passable. Note the wooden walkway below his legs, revealed where the insulation has been pushed aside. It is similar (but wider) than the crawlway inside the dome.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Another view of Tom accessing the interior of the Rivoli’s ceiling dome from the attic access point. We are on the East side of the dome. Tom is facing the West side of the theater, the stage is on his right. OK, now its my turn to squeeze into the dome entrance!

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

I crawled through the narrow opening and partially out onto a wooden ‘crawlway’ which I could see encircling the interior of the dome. My first was view looking nearly straight down into the theater. The worklight is illuminated and hanging in the right side of the photo. Some modern day heating/cooling ducts are visible on the front edge of the balcony. Not sure who that is walking up the aisle…

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Here’s a view from below looking up at the dome…the circle denotes the area where I was hanging over the edge of the dome perimeter and taking photos. Note the worklight hanging down, the same light that appears in the previous photo.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

After I entered the dome opening, I turned right and this is what I saw. A narrow, wooden catwalk running around the interior of the dome. To change the light bulbs that illuminated the dome, Rivoli workers would crawl along this structure. I estimated that if I were to crawl on my hands and knees, my shoulder would rub on the dome ceiling to the right. It was very, very cramped! Not to mention the thought of being 50 feet or so above the floor below and supported only by these ancient boards and plaster….hmmmm!

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Later, during the demolition process, I was able to take this photo of the edge of the dome. The bottom of the picture is the inside edge of the dome, the area that I peered over to take my pictures while up there. Looking up from below, one of the round decorative fixtures has been removed, and the superstructure above is revealed. Note the wooden boards that were the catwalk surface. The wooden catwalk is suspended by another board bolted to a metal beam. The rounded lip on each side of the wooden crawlway is plaster.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

Needless to say, I declined to venture out onto the catwalk, instead I perched with my elbows on the wooden walkway while my behind remained firmly wedged into the dome opening. This view is looking straight ahead. The decorative center of the dome serves as part of the Rivoli’s ventilation system. To the left, you can see other vents that are part of the air handling system.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

The red balcony seats are original, installed in 1927 and rearranged in 1968 to provide more legroom. In this picture you can see seven rows of balcony seats; according to an original seating chart there were 15 rows in the balcony in 1927. They were very narrow and somewhat uncomfortable. During the 1968 renovation, the main floor seating was replaced with the present-day blue seats, which were wider and more padded than their predecessors.

Photograph by John D. Disher, c1987

My final image from the dome. This was a truly incredible moment. Thanks Tom, for making this possible! I’m not sure why I chose only to shoot black and white images, in retrospect it was probably because the lighting was so poor, and I didn’t have any high speed color film with me. The entire space below is being illuminated by the diffuse reflected dome lighting plus two 250W worklights. Not much light for this large a space, especially to hand-hold while perched on a narrow catwalk so high up!

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12 responses

  1. Pingback: Last Days of the Rivoli Theater – The Tour « rivolitheatre

  2. P. R. Carpenter Jr.

    I still remember the Red seats in the balcony!

    October 19, 2011 at 5:43 pm

  3. Kathy

    I went in my younger days and during the last days where the theater allowed us to smoke in the back seats! I was shocked back then that you could do that! It’s too bad the Rivoli had to be demolished and not restored or used for different things inside. Love the pictures and I too wondered what happened to all that beautiful detail work inside. the Dome always facinated me. Thank you for sharing these pictures!

    October 26, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    • Kathy, thanks for checking out the shots and sharing your memories!

      October 31, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    • Kathy, thanks for sharing this memory! i did some research at the library and found an old article promoting the ‘new smoking section’ in the lobby as another way the Rivoli was meeting the needs of its customers! Funny how times change!

      November 7, 2011 at 2:44 am

  4. Gail

    Loved the Rivoli! I was so sad when it was demolished. Thanks for the picture tour–it brought back lots of good memories!

    November 14, 2011 at 2:47 am

    • Thanks Gail, more pictures still to be posted!

      November 14, 2011 at 3:59 am

  5. Debbie Blair Richcreek

    John: Thank you for posting these great photos of the Rivoli. I worked there throughout high school (approx. 1972- 1974) when the Battas family owned it and Mrs. Jackson managed it for them. One summer, Dave and Wanda (and their young sons) hired the regular student staff for some clean-up and repainting in the theatre. We painted everything that could be painted and had the run of interior spaces we’d never seen before. Two of the older (tall, thin) male students went into the dome to do some painting and I remember listening to them with awe as to what they found and their trek getting inside. I also remember watching them rather fearfully from the seats below as the rest of the crew (myself included) painted gallon after gallon of some sort of fancy, black “swirl” paint. (It was back-breaking work and we quickly grew tired of swirling our paint brushes around every single leg of each movie seat! Hard work aside, we earned some extra money in addition to our regular movie shifts (I worked concession and graduated to the ticket booth). We had a ton of fun that summer and I’ve never laughed so hard (especially when I accidently knocked a fire extinguisher off the wall in a back hallway stage left, the extinguisher started hissing and I stepped backward into a bucket of brown paint. As my friend and I ran out of the room to exit the building I left a trail of singular brown footprints all the way outside to the front entrance of the theatre!) I would ride my second-hand schwinn english racer from my Carson Street home to the theatre each day until the work was completed. The eerieness of the basement “catecombs” quickly gave way when we discovered they were actually dressing rooms for the old vaudeville theatre troops who performed there. We polished and shined the brass pole that stretched across the theatre floor along the entire length of the stage separating the theatre seats from the pipe organ and I remember how beautiful it looked. Upstairs in the hallway storage areas behind the balcony, we found old movie posters from the 30’s and 40’s, top hats, feather boas and metal New Year’s Eve “noisemakers” left over from past performances and stored nonchalantely – nearly forgotten. I would love to have one of those old posters now, but they belonged with the theatre as a piece of history frozen in time. The kindly gentlemen projectionists (they seemed “old” to me as a teenager and I remember someone mentioning to me that they were “union”) – Milo and the others whose names I have forgotten – would somtimes pop out of the projection booth just long enough to get a fountain coke from our concession. I can still hear the sound of the movie film flipping around the reels as the projectionists seamlessly changed from one reel to the next without missing a beat. (without the projectionists, there was no movie). If I had a dollar for every time I heard the sinking of the cruise ship in the “Poseiden Adventure”, i would be rich – it must have held the record for longest running movie! How fortunate I was to have had the opportunity to work in such a beautiful, historic theatre and I still have very dear memories.

    December 14, 2011 at 3:57 am

  6. Thank you for all your wonderful photographs John. What a walk down memory lane. I always looked up at the dome and wondered what it would be like to be up there. Now I know. Great to see you and the Rivoli after all these years.

    July 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    • Hi Brenda, thanks for checking out the site and photos. Being able to go up into the Rivoli’s dome was a dream come true for me!

      July 31, 2012 at 10:39 pm

  7. thomasratliff2013

    I stumbled across this website today and was instantly reminded with awe at the beauty of this classic downtown theatre. The Rivoli was an amazing place. Cherished by thousands for the 60 years of impact it made in countless lives. It wasn’t just a movie theater. No, the Rivoli was an institution providing cultural entertainment and physical character to the heart of the city. The occasional live performances late in her life demonstrated the versatility of her functionality. That massive stage, multiple backdrop curtains and back stage dressing rooms were each part of the charm and mystique that no other business in the area could boast. It was always a special experience to walk in the doors.

    I so wish it was still around today. Seeing how well you preserved the character and intrigue of this historic site, I am relieved that in part the Rivoli still continues on. Of course, for me, not only does the memory of “The Riv” still beat within my heart… but so does the honor of having guided you through the building that day! 26 years later, I am thrilled to have come across this website and have the memories of our adventure touring the Rivoli restored. Thank you for asking to preserve The Riv that week. I am so very glad to have shared in the experience with you. May many others come to enjoy the treasure that you have posted here for all to view. May it remind all who see it that we should protect and preserve our history; appreciating the things that make us smile.

    Thomas Ratliff

    September 10, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    • Thomas,
      I am delighted that you have found this site! It is fortuitous that in 1986 you took my phone call and agreed to help facilitate the photography seen in this blog. Without your help these images would likely not exist. To date, the site has experienced nearly 10,000 views from nearly every country in the world. The power of the Rivoli is amazing! I still marvel at the experience of exploring the Riv’s many spaces with you. Thank you!

      September 17, 2013 at 1:29 am

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